Saturday, October 09, 2010

Albert Pierrepoint was one of the Britain’s last hangmen and was responsible for the executions of hundreds of convicted felons. The end titles of the film say that he killed 608 individuals but other sources say that he killed around 400. Either way it’s a hell of a lot of people to take to the gallows.

Pierrepoint begins with its protagonist attending training for his new profession. He’s shown the procedures and he’s quizzed on some of the finer points of the job (in order to break the neck cleanly, one has to adjust the length of the noose according to the person’s height, weight and build - otherwise the executioner runs the risk of decapitating the felon). The film doesn’t go into great detail about why he chooses this job. He just says that he has something in him.

Part of the reason that he has something in him is because his father was a hangman. An uncle also did the same job. Therefore you could say that it’s the family business. However, the film isn’t particularly interested in Pierrepoint’s past - it’s more interested in showing how this profession changes and twists him. The only meaningful reference to the past is when Pierrepoint speaks to his mother - she says that she wants to hear nothing about his new profession; she wouldn’t talk to Albert’s father about his job and she’s going to do the same with her son.

During his first execution, Pierrepoint is just an assistant, but the hangman he’s assisting loses his nerve and Albert has to take charge. He’s calm under pressure and the pleading of the prisoner doesn’t seem to affect him. He’s able to make the disconnect that the other guy can’t. There’s no emotional engagement in the killing.

A lack of emotion might suggest a lack of feeling, but that certainly isn’t the case with Pierrepoint. When he carries out an execution, he’s merely following orders. He doesn’t do it because he gets any pleasure out of killing a fellow human being. His pride comes from doing things professionally; from making things easy for everyone. And this professionalism means that he has respect for the condemned. As he says himself, they’ve paid the price - in death they become innocent once more. Indeed, he even cleans the bodies himself after he’s hung them, thinking that the morticians wouldn’t treat the executed properly.

There’s almost an erotic element in one of the scenes as he cleans the body of a woman. Given his rather passionless marriage, you can’t help but feel that this is the closest he gets to another human being. Getting to hold them, to clean them and to make sure that they’re treated with dignity, he achieves the intimacy he lacks with his wife - he only has an illusion of closeness with his spouse.

At first everything seems fine between Pierrepoint and his wife, but the marriage quickly turns into a sham. There’s one horrible point where she can’t even bear to be touched by him. She knows that these hands have touched the dead and she doesn’t want the stain on her.

Yet she does want his money. She’s the one who makes the plans and she’s the one who convinces him to buy a pub. It’s also her idea to capitalise on his celebrity and to use it to sell more booze. It’s a cold, distant marriage.

However, what’s so great about the film is how subtly this is done. On the outside they seem like the perfect team. He has the charm, she has the brains. And on first glimpses they seem to get along fine. But then you begin to see the contempt that his wife has for Albert. He repulses her. She looks in his book, the book where he lists all of his executions, and she can only think of the hundreds he’s killed. The only way she can get past it is to focus on the money - at more than one point she nags him about some money he’s owed for an execution he wasn’t allowed to carry out.

Things only come to a head because Albert is called to execute a friend of his. This particular development would be too ridiculous to accept if the film were fictitious, but it actually happened. A regular at Albert’s pub, a man who was a friendly acquittance of Pierrepoint, killed his lover and was then condemned to death. Not knowing his real name (Pierrepoint only knows his nickname), Albert has no idea he’s been called to execute a friend. This sequence is one of the most powerful in the film. Albert’s friend is scared that Pierrepoint won’t acknowledge him during the execution, but knowing that this would be an act of cruelty, Albert does acknowledge him and does everything to make his friend’s experience as painless as possible. The only problem is that the whole ordeal causes Albert a huge amount of anguish. Prior to this, the executions had a professional separation - here his private life and his professional life have become horribly blurred.

What makes the experience even more unbearable is that Albert’s wife doesn’t want to hear anything about it. Even when he’s sitting on the floor, bawling his eyes out, she can’t tell him that he’s not a bad man. She has exactly the same attitude as his mother and she refuses to give him any emotional support. This burden is his and his alone.

But although the execution of his friend is when Pierrepoint reaches his professional nadir, the rot begins long before this. At the end of the Second World War, Pierrepoint is called to Germany to execute Nazi POWs. In one day alone he’s called to kill fourteen people. Even for a professional like Pierrepoint, this is too much. The experience is too long and too intense. It also brings him unwanted celebrity. He can no longer leave Albert at the door as the condemned now know who Albert is - they even plead to him by name.

The film leaves you with an overwhelming amount of sadness for Pierrepoint. Here’s a man who brings dignity and professionalism to his job and who is then punished because of his competency for it. He never wants to be solely recognised as an executioner but even his wife can’t look past it. He takes the burden and then is rewarded for it with contempt and loneliness. It’s an emotional execution that is the polar opposite of the ones he carried out - it’s long, painful and cruel.

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